Mine Reclamation Fund Board Gets Environmental Rep After Participation Concern

By Mike Tony, Charleston Gazette-Mail

An advisory council established to ensure the stability of a state fund key to the reclamation of abandoned mine lands is fully seated after the exit of a statutorily required member representing environmental organizations.

The West Virginia Senate approved nominations by Gov. Jim Justice to the Special Reclamation Fund Advisory Council this month that included the chairperson of the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, four months after state Department of Environmental Protection officials told the council’s longtime environmental group representative he was no longer a council member.

Jim Kotcon of Morgantown, the Sierra Club state chapter chair, was one of five appointees named by Justice to the council in a March 9 letter to the Senate.

Kotcon’s appointment follows DEP officials telling longtime environmental representative John Morgan he was no longer a council member on a call with DEP officials on Oct. 31.

DEP spokesperson Terry Fletcher said Morgan was removed because he isn’t a West Virginia resident. Fletcher pointed to a December 2017 email from Justice’s office to Morgan indicating he could no longer serve on the council because he wasn’t a state resident.

A Lexington, Kentucky, resident, Morgan noted his name and address have been listed along with those of other council members in the council’s annual reports to the Legislature since 2017.

Neither the Governor’s Office nor the DEP responded to requests for comment on their statutory basis for determining non-state residents may not be council members.

“This should have been handled in a way to allow environmental groups to participate,” Mike Becher, a senior attorney with Lewisburg-based Appalachian Mountain Advocates, told the Gazette-Mail in November.

Chapter 22, Section 1, Article 17 of state code establishing the Special Reclamation Fund Advisory Council doesn’t include residency requirements.

West Virginia Senate Communications Director Jacque Bland said in a November email that, generally, when a section of state code is silent, “there’s no requirement either way.”

West Virginia environmental groups recommended Morgan, Kotcon and Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, for the open environmental representative position following Morgan’s ouster.

Kotcon, a longtime associate professor of plant pathology at West Virginia University, said he appreciates the chance to serve in the role and recalled a 2021 state Legislative Auditor’s Office report finding lawmakers and environmental regulators risked letting the state’s mining reclamation program slip into insolvency through gaping holes in statutory and permitting oversight.

“I hope to call attention to these needs, and thereby help protect both our taxpayers as well as the land and water threatened by unreclaimed mine sites,” said Kotcon, whose term ends June 30, 2029.

A note from Cindy Rank:

Created several years ago in response to a citizen lawsuit re: inadequate bonding for coal mine operations, the West Virginia Special Reclamation Fund Advisory Council has always been a bit less than what we plaintiffs had hoped for. Fortunately, WVHC and co-plaintiffs proposed and supported Kentucky-based coal engineer, and oft-times expert witness in our court proceedings, John Morgan as our representative on the Council for his knowledge, experience, ability and willingness to challenge the incorrect assertions and assumptions often proferred by other members of the Council. His unexplained expulsion from the Council is a loss.

On the bright side however, the Governor has appointed WVHC friend and ally Sierra Club Chair Jim Kotcon to be our new representative on the Council. No doubt Jim will rise to the occasion with his clear thinking, to-the-point questioning, and ability to discern factual accuracy—i.e. He can cut through the crap as well as anyone.  

We wish him the best.